perm_identity Interconnecting Decades at the annual AWP Conference

by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 128 ~ January, 2008

As I was falling asleep the other night, the opening paragraph suddenly came to me in my head, sentence upon flowing sentence, intact, a jump start, the rest would easily come after, but I was too tired to roll over, much less turn on the light and jot anything down. So, here I am, a different opening paragraph, but one that at least acknowledges the initial one that slipped away forever.

It’s less than a week to the start of the annual AWP conference, this year in New York City, my home territory, early childhood in Queens, attending college in Manhattan, and then working for newspapers in the Bronx. Wow, some 7,000 writers and writing students are descending on midtown Manhattan at the Hilton Hotel and the Sheraton to attend panels, and readings, receptions, and a giant book fair, to socialize and learn, to party, within limits for some, and over the edge for others, but more important, I suppose, to feel part of the greater writing community.

I’m fortunate, I think, because I’m from the outside. I’m not sure if it was by choice, but I did bypass academia, and yet somehow, following the winding course of some success, but more setbacks, I find myself moderating a panel at this year’s AWP Conference. Yep, me! Really me — though it hardly seems true as I sip Theraflu after finishing a front page article for the Co-op City paper on approving $12.5 million out of a reserve fund, basically a “rainy day” account, to continue making construction repairs in this development of 35 high-rise buildings, with some 55,000 people in the northeast Bronx, which would be one of the larger cities in the State of New York, if it wasn’t part of New York City.

Perspectives shift, and for good or bad, I somehow seem to remain myself, constant, the same conscious mind observing, never blending or becoming lost in the multitude. And, that’s good, I think. But, maybe not. Hillary Clinton came to New Jersey the other week, a pit stop with party bosses where hors d’oeuvres cost $2,300 at a special reception and one was able to mutter a couple of sentences to Mrs. Clinton, who arrived ninety minutes late, but that’s the price of the 24-hour news cycle and celebrity politics.

Between Hillary Clinton and the obsessive coverage of actor Heath Ledger’s death, it can make most feel somewhat detached, even while bursting with the genuine feeling about many aspects of life. And if nothing else, the AWP Conference is about life, and maybe like life, perhaps a bit overwhelming at times, but if you approach people one on one, chances are you may very well be pleasantly surprised, for everyone has a story, whether they know it or not.

The idea for the panel, “New York in the Fifties,” came from the book by Dan Wakefield by the same name. I don’t feel it, but I was born in the early fifties, though ofttimes I think I’m the last of the World War Two generation, even though I was born almost a decade after the Third Reich collapsed. I have vivid childhood memories of Manhattan, and they seem right, small town USA in an urban metropolis, seen across the country in black and white movies about tales of the naked city. A simpler time, maybe; but perhaps not; once again, all dependent on the individual.

In many ways, at least from my vantage point of attending three previous AWP conferences, it reminds me of summer vacation at the lake in Ontario, where each year, my brother and sisters and I would run into our friends from summers past and pick up mid sentence. And that’s the relationship I have with some who attend the AWP, one writing couple from Los Angeles, in particular, whom, so far, I’ve had dinner with every year the first night before things really kick off. It’s one of my closer friendships, because this writer and his wife are just wonderful people who made me feel part of the AWP Conference in Vancouver three years ago when I arrived without knowing a single person.

The energy and excitement at the AWP is amazing, even if I remain the observer rather than a true participant. I wonder at times what it would have been like if I had known of the AWP when I was younger, graduate student age, but that’s foolish thinking. Actually, up until I was asked to be on a panel at the AWP conference in Vancouver in 2005, I probably would have thought AWP had something to do with auto workers. But no matter, this year, I’m coming to the AWP, still from the outside, but with such great writers on my panel, I really feel a part of the history of the literary tradition.

I’m not in awe, but I suppose I could be; my panelists are all part of living history, as we all are, but they are witnesses to a specific era, New York in the Fifties, which was a vital period, still exerting a powerful influence on American life today. Dan Wakefield, the man who wrote the book, New York in the Fifties, which gave me the idea for the panel, and subsequently, when I learned his classic book was out of print, somehow I was able to bring Charles Salzberg of Greenpoint Press together with Richard Luck, founder of PIF, and Charles knew a graphic designer, Rob Kimmel, and three months later, a new edition of New York in the Fifties came into being. An incredible experience, five or so people involved, a three-month period, no fights or arguments because everyone had the same goal, and now once again, New York in the Fifties is available to readers.

And then, I was extremely lucky, two of Dan Wakefield’s friends from fifty years ago in the Village agreed to be on the panel. Bruce Jay Friedman, who has been hailed as a comic genius, as a short story writer, novelist, and playwright, agreed to be on the panel, as did composer/musician David Amram, who teamed up with Jack Kerouac for the first live jazz poetry reading in New York City in 1957, and who also has performed with such greats as Leonard Bernstein, Lionel Hampton, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, and Dizzy Gillespie. Both of these guys were friends and hung out with other writers and such, whom I knew of from afar or read while I was in high school. I was at David Amram’s farm in Putnam County the other Sunday, and as he cooked up a frying pan of asparagus, he talked almost non-stop about the people he had known over the years, not in a name dropping way, but more as a natural part of the vivid narrative of his life, and then what he thought of the way things are today, never with bitterness, but always with an ever onward exuberance of well, where do you want to go from here? There’s still so much to do and so much music to be made, and sharing laughs and experience and life.

Jack Kerouac. It doesn’t really matter whether one is a fan of Kerouac or not, the fact that Amram was a friend and loyal to Kerouac through his fame, and then remained a true friend during Kerouac’s descent toward a lonely and isolated death, no doubt caused by alcoholism, forces me to consider the panorama of life. Not that I have any great conclusions. But, for what it’s worth, to try and give some perspective, I’m not even in contact with anyone I went to high school with and Amram was actually friends, close friends, with a living embodiment of an American legend, not in a superficial way, or in a frenzied celebrity horde way, but actually intimate friends, friends who could talk about music, the latest book each read, or how the Brooklyn Dodgers were doing, in real time, at a time when the legendary team existed.

And Wakefield has captured that in his book, New York in the Fifties. Bruce Jay Friedman was a part of it, as was historian Thomas Fleming, who traveled down his own path, and Stephen Koch, author of The Breaking Point: Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and the Murder of Jose Robles, and Stargazer: The Life, World and Films of Andy Warhol, who hopped on a bus in Minnesota to venture to New York City to become a writer, a writer like those in the `50s, little dreaming that one day I would be sitting in one of his seminars at Columbia University, and now some two decades later, appearing on a panel with him.

But even if there was no panel, or no AWP, I have read books by all five of these writers and each one has made a difference to me, and I hope most of you will be able at some point to say the same.